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Is Gun Runner ready to fire at Saratoga?

By Ron Flatter  ( 

August 4, 2017 01:38 PM
Gun Runner comes into Saturday's race seven weeks after he led at every call to win the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs by seven lengths.
© Churchill Downs

LAS VEGAS — There is a tired cliché that says a horse that goes to Dubai is not the same when it gets back to America.


It is a sophistic argument that has been whispered about Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate since his upset loss last month. This weekend, the same test will be applied to two of his vanquished rivals at Meydan, including his closest pursuer for both Horse of the Year and the role of betting favorite in this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.


All right, so Gun Runner and Keen Ice have already had one race each since returning from the Middle East – and one victory each. But the challenge gets a little tougher Saturday at 5:46 p.m. EDT. That is when they figure to be the top two betting choices in what may be a rain-soaked $1.2 million Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.


Second to Arrogate in Dubai, Gun Runner (4-5) comes into the race seven weeks after he led at every call to win the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs by seven lengths. The enigmatic Keen Ice (3-1) finished seventh in Dubai but then bounced back last month to win the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park.


“He was coming back from Dubai running a mile-and-a-quarter off a bit of a layoff, so those things are always a concern,” Keen Ice’s trainer Todd Pletcher said. “We felt like he was training well. Obviously we were very pleased with that race.”


It was also the first victory for the 5-year-old closer since he upset American Pharoah in the Travers at Saratoga two summers ago. Ten races came in between – as did Keen Ice’s transfer 16 months ago from his old trainer Dale Romans to Pletcher.


“I think it was important for him to win another race,” Pletcher said. “It had been a little while since he had won, and he had run competitively in some races that were probably less than ideal for him. The only thing I’d like to change is make the Whitney a mile-and-a-quarter. I think he’s best at a mile-and-a-quarter, but it’s a mile-and-an-eighth, so hopefully we can get an honest pace to run at and he can overcome it.”


For Gun Runner, defeat has been an exception to the rule – at least lately. After finishing second in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the 4-year-old colt trained by Steve Asmussen has won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap and the Stephen Foster with an average margin of victory of more than five lengths.


“He’s always improving,” Gun Runner’s jockey Florent Geroux said. “Every time I ride him he always comes back a better horse after each start.”


What Gun Runner has not had to endure in that time is the sort of wide draw he is stuck with in the Whitney. He was drawn into gate 6 with all but one other horse starting inside him to try and neutralize his early speed.


“I thought he ran a pretty good race last year in the Travers from the ‘14’ over the racetrack,” Asmussen said. “The post should not hinder him one way or the other.”


But a closer look at last year’s Travers reveals that Gun Runner finished third, all right – but he was 15 lengths behind. The winner setting a track record that day last August was Arrogate in a performance that signaled his crashing of racing’s ‘A’ list. Wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup have come since for Arrogate. But so did last month’s fourth-place comedown in the San Diego Handicap.


That loss drifted Arrogate from even money to 3-2 at Wynn Las Vegas to repeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gun Runner has since shortened as the second choice from 7-1 to 5-1. Shaman Ghost, runner-up to Keen Ice in the Suburban, has held firm as an 8-1 third choice. Keen Ice is still no better than 20-1 to win the $6 million race in November at Del Mar.


As for that returning-from-Dubai debate, there are plenty of cases on either side. The most glaring example of each was California Chrome. His second-place finish in the 2015 Dubai World Cup was followed by a noble but disastrous trip to England where he stopped eating, fell dreadfully out of shape and came home desperately needing new direction – and getting a new managing co-owner. Then he bounced back to win last year’s Dubai World Cup before finishing a valiant second to Arrogate last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.


Just which category Arrogate, Gun Runner and Keen Ice fall into remains to be seen. History suggests it may be toughest for Arrogate. The only time the same horse won both the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic the same year was Curlin in 2008. The same Curlin that would go on to sire Keen Ice.


With questions persisting about what went wrong last month, trainer Bob Baffert said Arrogate’s 47 1/5-second workout Tuesday over four furlongs convinced him that the $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic would definitely be next.


“We’re running,” Baffert told the Daily Racing Form. “He was floating over the track. He had to look like that.”


So was Baffert right when he first thought that he undertrained Arrogate for last month’s return race from Dubai? Or was it just – well – Dubai? We may never know. One thing is certain. This month’s races for all three horses are certain to fuel the debate.


Classic Empire may work – and a few other notes.


Already pushed back a week, Classic Empire’s latest workout has been penciled in by trainer Mark Casse for this weekend at Saratoga. It would be his first time on the worktab in two months. The best 2-year-old in 2016 was forced out of the Belmont Stakes by a foot abscess, and before that his buildup to a troubled Kentucky Derby was interrupted by hoof and back trouble. Classic Empire’s last race was the Preakness, in which he finished second. Casse still hopes to run him in three weeks in the Travers, but he also said next month’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby would be an alternative.


Trained by Asmussen and ridden by Corey Lanerie, Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee (3-1) is the morning-line favorite to win the $750,000 Grade 3 West Virginia Derby on Saturday at 5:21 p.m. EDT. The one-eyed colt Patch (7-2), third in the Belmont Stakes, is projected to be the second choice in the field of 11 at Mountaineer Park.


The 11th and final race Saturday at Saratoga is a better-than-average, optional-claiming race featuring two colts that have previously raced for much bigger stakes. Neolithic (1-1) comes back for Pletcher after finishing third in the Dubai World Cup. Coolmore-owned Mo Town (9-2) returns for Tony Dutrow after a seventh-place thud in the Wood Memorial. The seven-furlong race represents a cutback from two turns for both horses.


Jeanie Buss, president of the Los Angeles Lakers, has made a move into horse racing. Her new Purple Rein Stable has hired two-time Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill to train her thoroughbreds.


Víctor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to the 2015 Triple Crown, headlined the class of 2017 that entered the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame on Friday at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Two other jockeys – four-time reigning champion Javier Castellano and the late Garrett Gómez – and three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova were also inducted.

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